TAMPA – When Christopher Ruiz finishes high school in a few years, he aims to have an associate’s degree under his belt and be well on his way to graduating from a four-year university — a first for his family.
The 15-year-old ninth-grader and 43 of his classmates are already taking courses for college credit through Leto High School’s Collegiate Academy, which launched in the fall and allows students to work toward an associate’s degree at no cost.
If the Florida Legislature passes a bill filed last week by Senate education committee chairman John Legg, there will soon be more programs like the one at Leto throughout the state.
The Lutz Republican, whose district includes parts of Pasco and Hillsborough counties, wants to require institutions in the Florida College System to work with school districts to establish collegiate high schools such as Leto’s academy, which is offered as a magnet program through a partnership between Hillsborough Community College and the Hillsborough County school district.
Armwood and Lennard high schools also started Collegiate Academies this school year and the three have 190 students enrolled from all over the county.
“We’ve heard so many successes about how those students are provided access to more rigorous coursework at a higher level,” Legg said. “I believe that needs to be replicated in other parts of the state.”
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Legg said the bill is a call for community and state colleges to make more of an effort to engage high-schoolers in college-level courses.
“Some of them have taken innovative approaches to resolving this issue such as Hillsborough County,” he said. “Only about half of our state colleges do this. Pasco and Hernando do not. Pinellas has one, which is absolutely amazing, and they want to expand it. We’ve told the state colleges the bottom line is we need to find a way to provide more access.”
The proposed bill comes the year after the law changed to require that school districts pay tuition costs for students taking free dual-enrollment courses at state colleges. Before that, colleges absorbed the costs. HCC works with the Hillsborough school district to offer more dual-enrollment courses at high schools instead of at the college to alleviate some of the cost, said college spokeswoman Ashley Carl.
Nearly 500 Hillsborough high-schoolers are enrolled in dual-enrollment classes at HCC.
“We would hope any legislation would look at the success HCC and our school district has together in our Collegiate Academy and our dual-enrollment program to benefit students in high school,” Carter said.
What sets a collegiate high school apart from a typical dual-enrollment program is that it spans four years, the students go through a competitive applications process to get in, and they have the opportunity to leave high school with a degree under their belts.
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To enroll, students must pass Algebra 1 and maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Their standardized test scores in math, reading and writing are also considered.
Any student in the school district who meets the requirements can apply.
Once in the program, they juggle rigorous honors courses with college-level classes at the school’s campus on West Sligh Avenue. To stay in the Collegiate Academy, students must keep their grades up.
“The rigor is definitely college level,” said Sean Hensley, who oversees Leto’s academy as a lead teacher. “They learn how to budget, how to take personal time, how to make sure you’re not overworking yourself.”
In addition to creating a more challenging experience for students, collegiate high schools target students from demographics that are underrepresented in college campuses across the country — minorities and those from low-income families, for example.
About 70 percent of the Leto Collegiate Academy students will be first-generation college students, including Christopher, who says he wants to be a professional baseball player one day and a video-game designer. He said taking college-level classes has been tough but worth it.
“It challenges us to be more responsible,” he said.
Ninth-grader Gleisy Cruz, 15, will also be the first in her family to go to college.
“We’ll only have to go to undergraduate for two years and we can start our career before anyone else,” Gleisy said.
School district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said district officials are talking about expanding collegiate academies to other high schools. Nearly 2,000 students applied for a spot at one of the three sites this school year, so more than half were turned away.
“It’s been very much in demand,” Hegarty said. “No decisions have been made, but it’s up for serious discussion.”
Collegiate academy also inspires students who aren’t in it, said Shelley Olson, who teaches a vocabulary improvement class in Leto’s program.
“They’re saying, ‘How can I get into this?’ It’s a big motivation to keep their grades up.”
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, the last name of Hillsborough Community College spokeswoman Ashley Carl was incorrect.